2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

After a few minutes of orchestral strings making an aimless, dissonant racket, the first thunderous notes of "Thus Spake Zarathrustra" begin to play, as we're greeted with a sudden close-up of the moon, before it's superseded by the sight of a newborn Sun cresting over the Earth, the two heavenly spheres uniting in the most perfect of alignments, and, as the musical piece booms towards its climax, a title card announces the name of the film we're about to have the pleasure of watching: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. This opening shot will prove to be a perfect microcosm of the movie itself; both incredibly intimidating and foreboding, as well as impossibly epic and full of endless promise, it's a film that is both immediately comprehensible on a gut level, while also cryptic enough with its deeper meanings that it's been endlessly scrutinized and over-analyzed for over half a century now, with still no end of its grip on film scholarship in sight, to the point that I just wrote the entire opening paragraph of this review about just the first few minutes alone without you realizing it, didn't I?

All jokes aside, while it's not easy (and rather pointless) to try accurately describing the plot of 2001 in mere words, I'll make an attempt anyway; beginning at the "Dawn Of Man" (as the opening chapter card helpfully informs us), with a starving tribe of apes who learn how to use tools after the unexplained appearance of a foreboding stone "monolith" in their midst, the film suddenly jumps millions of years into the future, with the just-as-sudden reappearance of the massive, iPhone-shaped square on the Moon, a discovery that leads the men who discovered it (and mankind in turn) on the most epic of cinematic journeys, one that spans the stars, and ultimately, the very limits of human evolution itself. It's a grand story that manages to both be incredibly cryptic with its story and imagery, as well as make perfect sense upon deeper analysis, with Kubrick's screenplay collaborator, Science-Fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke, helps ensure that the story always knows exactly where it's going and what it's saying, a striking clarity that I wish certain other works in the genre would be able to attain (I'm looking at you, Prometheus...)

But like I said, describing the story of 2001 is unnecessary anyway, as the real pleasure of the film is the unparalleled sensory experience it offers on the whole, as, since Kubrick adheres to both a "show, don't tell", visually-based style of storytelling, as well as to a hard scientific accuracy in the film's portrayal of interstellar travel, which often includes a complete lack of sound in the vacuum of space, an aspect that makes these scenes perfect for emphasizing the classical music soundtrack that fits so well, it's hard to believe that it wasn't written specifically for the film itself, as it perfectly enhances the elegant, slow-motion "dances" of the impossibly detailed space stations and ships on display here, all lovingly crafted by Kubrick's design team, and even over half a century later, the practical models and effects of 2001 still look more realistic than most works of Science Fiction that are being produced today.

Of course, some viewers have found the slow, extended sequences of space travel in the film to be fairly dull and uneventful, but I've always appreciated the way that these minutes-long intermissions allow us to just relax and soak in the interminglings of technology with the endless beauty of space, as the film makes us wait on its own, millennias-long timeline that nonetheless still proves to be oddly propulsive in its own, one-of-a-kind way, as it's completely unafraid to take all the time it needs to craft the right mood, lulling us into the proper state of hypnotic viewing, even if you haven't tried enhancing your experience by certain "substances" as you watch, as a number of contemporary hippies are reported to have done during the film's original release (hey, there's a good reason why one of the film's taglines is "The ultimate trip", after all).

At any rate, another aspect that 2001 excels at is the way that it presents a truly full-bodied, three-dimensonal vision of the future, not content to offer a shiny but ultimately vague conceptualization, but one that really tries making informed, educated speculations about what life in the then-future year of 2001 would be like, with the way its portrayal of the commercialization of space travel turns it into being just another everyday errand, with such "mundane" details as the sight of a flight attendent making a disorienting, zero-G walk upside down simply to deliver lunch to a pair of eagerly waiting shuttle pilots.

This subtly, effortlessly ties into 2001's recurring message that, despite all the wondrous sights and technologies that the future of the film has to offer us as viewers, to the characters in the actual film, an experience like flying to a massive space station rotating in the heavens has become so everyday, it can be unintentionally napped through, as humanity has become dull and jaded in the future that none of the human beings in the film exhibit so much as a hint of having an personality, with the most memorable character in the film being the glowing red dot that represents the supercomputer "HAL", with the most emotional scene happening after he's begun to malfunction, as he slowly, helplessly begs (in his unnervingly robotic monotone) to not have his "mind" erased.

Finally, 2001 excels in its absolute refusal to provide any unnecessary, audience-coddling answers to the universe shattering questions that it raises, as, even as advanced as mankind is in the film, it still shows there are certain things that will always be beyond our comprehension as human beings (at least, that is, until we evolve into something greater than that). It's perplexing storytelling that nonetheless knows exactly what to let the audience know (and not know), both showcasing the great fear we would experience upon making first contact with an alien intelligence eons beyond our understanding, with the incredibly eerie, harrowing choirs moaning in the background that accompany almost every sighting of the Monolith, while also ultimately proving to be optimistic about the endless possibilities of such contact. In that way, 2001 still towers over cinema like the Monolith itself over humanity, proving to be the finest example of Kubrick's legendary perfectionism, and watching it for the first time is a lot like experiencing what Dave does when he goes "beyond the infinite" towards the end; you have no idea what exactly what you're experiencing, but you also know that you'll never, ever be the same again.

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